Berkeley school district must eliminate racial biases

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JANUARY 22, 2019

As a parent of two Black sons who went through Berkeley public schools and after 12 years on the Berkeley school board, I am convinced that the single most significant factor in our continuing racial academic disparities along racial lines is the implicit bias of too many of our classroom teachers, resource teachers, administrators and third-party service providers.

Implicit bias is real and insidious. Because of implicit bias, many educators expect Black students to act out and perform poorly, and they assume parenting and socioeconomic standing are the sole factors in academic achievement. Additionally, they equate low academic skill with low ability rather than seeing it as a call for more effective teaching.

In the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, 24 percent of all Black students have been placed in special education, primarily because of behavior-related issues and/or for being below grade level in academic skills. By contrast, 5 percent of white students are placed in special education and identified with specific learning disabilities. Black students are segregated into nonchallenging lower-level classes, and disproportionate numbers of Black students are suspended or otherwise sent out of class for disciplinary reasons, losing precious class time.

Black students have too often been treated as adults rather than as children. For example, preadolescent Black boys have been accused of sexual harassment rather than treated as children who need to understand and be taught about boundaries, language appropriateness or anti-bullying. Black parents have been accused of not caring about their children’s education if they don’t show up for school and seen as threatening if they do show. And, there is little acknowledgement of Black contributions, issues or perspectives in the school curriculum and instruction.

Because of implicit bias, too many of our teachers don’t exhibit the moral imperative to take personal responsibility for educating every student in their classes. Instead, they outsource the responsibility for Black students to the literacy coach, math coach, special education staff and/or intervention staff, perpetuating the narrative that Black students are “less than” and cannot learn except through extraordinary means.

To combat the impact of implicit bias on Black student achievement, BUSD must focus on changing low expectations regarding student achievement and behavior and on creating effective and developmentally appropriate classroom-management skills. It is also critical that the BUSD focus on standards-based teaching, including a strong emphasis on phonics and a racially inclusive curriculum.

Additionally, a respectful partnership with Black families and the Black community, as well as the recruitment of more Black adults in our schools — whether they be teachers, intervention staff or community members — is essential to resolving racial inequity in the classroom. And, BUSD must encourage and support Black students and families to speak out and report instances of racism and implicit bias. This is just as important as investments in academic intervention and social-emotional support initiatives that focus on “fixing the victim” but do not fix the system that is adding to the harm.

BUSD educators must also acknowledge how difficult it is to do well in school while possibly dealing with the hardships and stress of being low-income in the Bay Area or dealing with street violence and temptations. Regardless of socioeconomic challenges, having to deal with the daily little cuts and major blows of racial bias is disheartening.

Overhearing racist comments by fellow students and even their parents, having people assume you are not from Berkeley, and being assumed to be low-achieving by fellow students regardless of actual academic performance damage the self-esteem of Black students. Being rousted by police simply for walking or driving while Black, being surrounded by media that consistently portrays Black people as criminals, and a lack of role models who look like them is extremely damaging to psychological well-being.

Recognition of this damage is a critical part of understanding why so many Black students are demonstratively disengaged. Educators should read and discuss books such as “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” to learn how to tackle their own biases.  

So, instead of assuming Black students are pathologically unable to succeed academically, BUSD educators should flip the narrative and see that the vast majority of Black students are in fact exhibiting incredible strength of character just to keep trying academically — and often excelling — within an educational system that does not honor them and a society that disparages them.

Interestingly enough, the California Teachers Association has taken on the issue of implicit bias and has contracted with a consultant team to address implicit bias within its membership. I challenge the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, which is part of the California Federation of Teachers, to follow this lead and work with the school district to do the deep work necessary to eliminate the impact of racial bias in our schools.


Contact Karen Hemphill at 


JANUARY 22, 2019